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Good Habits for Boosting Brain Health

Brain Health

Among Good Habits for Boosting Brain Health:  Weight Lifting

When you think of things you can do to protect brain health, weight lifting is probably not first on your list.  A number of recent articles tout the benefits of resistance training and weight lifting for your body AND your brain – and when combined with aerobic activity, can increase strength and improve cognition in older adults.[1]  The Mayo Clinic says that exercise is good for your body and your brain (see list below)[2] and that diet can slow aging in your brain.[3]  Further, weightlifting may strengthen your nervous system.[4]

Brain Benefits of Exercise

•        Feel better – moderate aerobic exercise helps with stress, mood, and even depressive symptoms.

•        Enhance learning – physical activity may help improve math scores and reading comprehension.

•        Sharpen memory – exercise can help reverse decreases in brain size and that young adults with better cardiovascular fitness also had better memory, motor skills and executive function as middle-aged adults.

•        Improve vision – stimulates the part of your brain that helps you understand what you are seeing – may enhance visual learning.


The many benefits of weight training and resistance workouts  – especially for aging bodies and minds – are still being studied and a good synopsis of research can be found here.[5]  In addition to reducing anxiety and depression, exercise and weight training can improve psychological well-being.[6]  Resistance training appears to have positive effects on cognition in older adults.[7]

Balance

"balance" by Rosmarie Voegtli is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Weight or resistance training strengthens your bones (we lose bone mass starting at about age 40)[8], muscle mass (which we start to lose by about age 30), and balance.  Strength training targets the bones most likely to fracture:  hips, wrist, and spine. Resistance workouts enhance strength and stability, which reduces the likelihood of falling. [9]  Finally, adding strength training to a cardio routine can help with weight loss or maintenance and can help burn more calories by increasing metabolism.[10]

If you have any medical conditions or are over 40, you might want to check in with your doctor before starting weightlifting or strength training.  In any case, if you’re new to it, you might want to get professional advice on what resistance or lifting exercises to do, how to do them (proper form is key), and how many repetitions and sets you should be doing.  You don’t want to hurt yourself by overdoing it with weights or by using them incorrectly.  That said, there are a lot of articles and videos for strength training and weight lifting for all levels of ability and experience.  Here are some online resources that may be useful:

Harvard Health:  Simple strength training tips

Mayo Clinic:  Strength training: How-to video collection

Livestrong.com:  Strength training for beginners

Self:  How to start working out with weights at home

Verywellfit.com:  Basic strength training with good form

How to Build Muscle Fast and Naturally

Totalshape.com

Having added strength or power training to your to cardiovascular exercise routine, another step you can take to preserve brain health is adding brain-healthy foods to your diet. 

MIND diet

The Mayo Clinic reports that the MIND diet combines elements of the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet to emphasize foods that affect brain health.  Here is a pared down description of what to eat and what to avoid:[11]

  • Eat your vegetables! Leafy greens (e.g., lettuce, kale, collards, spinach) provide a healthy dose of nutrients that are linked to better brain health. Try to eat six servings of leafy greens per week and at least one other vegetable every day.
  • Berries – Blueberries and strawberries have high levels of flavonoids, which appear to be beneficial in slowing cognitive decline. Try to eat berries twice a week.
  • Nuts – High in vitamin E, known to protect brains, but also high in calories and fat.  A handful five times a week could replace other snacks (e.g., chips).
  • Olive oil -  Use as primary cooking oil – extra virgin is best.
  • Eat meat in moderation – no more than four servings per week. Substitute legumes (beans, lentils, soybeans).
  • Fish – Eat fish at least once a week. The American Brain society suggests  having two servings per week.[12]
  • A glass of wine – may lower the risk of dementia or delay its onset by helping blood flow
Grilled Salmon planks

"wild salmon grilled on a cedar plank" by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Why It Matters

Eating well, getting 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, and doing muscle-strengthening exercises two or three times per week are recommendations for staying healthy and fit. Power training, where you add speed when performing strengthening exercises or do plyometrics (e.g., jumping exercises), is also important.[13]   Eating fish once or twice a week is beneficial and easy to do.  Fish really is brain food – especially fatty fish like wild salmon.  Sizzlefish offers wild Alaska King Salmon, and wild Alaska coho salmon, wild Alaska sockeye salmon, Copper River king salmon many other types of wild caught fish and seafood.  While fatty fish like salmon are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, all fish have some level of omega-3s and other vitamins and minerals that are essential nutrients for keeping hearts and brains healthy.[14]  

[1] Mavros, Yorgi, et al. (2016) Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment:  outcomes of the study of mental and resistance training. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Clinical Investigations. Online version: Oct. 24, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.14542

[2] Mayo Clinic website, November 1, 2018 https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/want-a-strong-brain-exercise/art-20390074

[3]  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/improve-brain-health-with-the-mind-diet/art-20454746 (dated July 31, 2019)

[4] Society for Neuroscience. (2020, June 29). Lifting weights makes your nervous system stronger, too: The first few weeks of weightlifting strengthen the reticulospinal tract, not muscles. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 8, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200629132104.htm

[5]  Rizzo, Nicholas (2020) 78 Science Backed Benefits of Weightlifting for Seniors. RunRepeat.com. Posted August 27, 2020. https://runrepeat.com/weightlifting-benefits-seniors

[6] Bampton, E.A., Johnson, S.T., & Vallance, J.K. (2015) Profiles of resistance training behavior and sedentary time among older adults: Associations with health-related quality of life and psychosocial health. Preventive Medicine Reports, 2:773-776. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2015.08.017

[7] Ladrigan, J.-F., Bell, T., Crowe, M., Clay, O.J. & Mirman, D. (2020). Lifting cognition:  a meta-analyis of effects of resistance exercise on cognition. Psychological Research, 84:1167-1183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01145-x

[8] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/strength-training-builds-more-than-muscles

[9] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/preserve-your-muscle-mass

[10] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046670

[11] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/improve-brain-health-with-the-mind-diet/art-20454746

[12] https://americanbrainsociety.org/10-superfoods-to-boost-brain-power/

[13] Strength and Power Training for All Ages:  4 complete workouts to tone up, slim down, and get fit.  A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report. 2017.   https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/strength-and-power-training-for-all-ages

[14] https://www.doh.wa.gov/communityandenvironment/food/fish/healthbenefits